As of the writing of this article, I have only been training for a little over 8.5 years, and I only just earned my shodan (1st degree black belt) last Summer. Even so, I’ve seen and heard of so many instances of the “shodan slump” to know that it’s real, and I feel grateful that I have managed to avoid it. For many, shodan is the ultimate goal that is driving their training and, once they achieve it, they feel as though they have “finished what they started,” and they quit. There are others, though, who would continue training, but they become bored with the yudansha (black belt rank holder) curriculum, if there even is one. This is when they enter into “the slump,” when they feel that they are no longer progressing, and just doing the same thing they’ve been doing for years. These two situations are why so few people who earn shodan ever make it to nidan (2nd degree black belt).
When you are coming up through the kyu ranks (the color belts), you are busy learning how to perform the kihon-waza (basic techniques) of the system, and how to do the movements of the kata. Your dojo may also include formal partner drills, self defense techniques, and fitness goals for you to work on. This is an awful lot of material to memorize, practice, and develop muscle memory for. When you’re busy with all of that, it’s easier to set small goals to help you stay motivated. Then, when you’re told that you are going to test for shodan, you get even more motivated, and put in extra hours of practice and study. Once it’s all over, though, and you have that black cloth around your waist, what comes next? It’s easy to feel like you have run out of things to learn, because the learning curve comes close to leveling off. The closer you get to “perfection,” the farther away it seems to get, and the slower you progress towards it. In addition, the smooth curve in the image, above, doesn’t completely represent that journey. In reality, that line has many peaks and valleys throughout that gently upward trend. You will have days where you feel like you are really making great strides in improving your karate, but you will also have days where you feel you have slipped back downhill. Those days can be the hardest ones to train on, but they are important–without failure, you cannot improve.
The biggest problem that karateka face, after earning their shodan rank, is the boredom of repetition. It is true that repetition of kihon and kata are vital to maintaining and refining your technique, as well as forging a determined spirit, but this is something that should mostly be done on your own time (I recently wrote about this, here). If the classes you attend after shodan simply continue to work on the same kihon and kata as before, then you will probably feel stagnant. Even learning a new kata or partner drill should be pretty simple for a yudansha, so that isn’t really enough of a challenge to keep them engaged. I once heard it put this way, which I thought was pretty profound; “if you do karate for 30 years, do you want to look back on it and see that you have trained for 30 years, or that you have trained for 3 years 10 times.” Similarly, I was recently given the advice to “not mistake longevity for experience.”
The way I see it, yudansha should have already learned the fundamentals of their system enough to practice it on their own, and only occasionally have it checked by their sensei. Their focus should really be exploring and enhancing their personal approach to karate. This is when the more time-intensive aspects of training, such as tactile sensitivity, conditioning for small-surface strikes, and power generation, should be incorporated into (or replace) your kihon practice in class. You should also be practicing kata bunkai (analysis), if you haven’t already, by breaking down your kata into sections and figuring out how to apply them (oyo) in self defense situations. It is also an excellent time to attend seminars or cross-train in other arts to expand your approach to karate. In addition, you will likely be doing at least some teaching, which gives a unique opportunity to receive thought-provoking questions and feedback.
On paper, yudansha have the smallest amount of curriculum to learn, and the most time to do it. In reality, there is so much to learn and develop that it is probably the most exciting time in a karateka’s journey. As a mudansha (one without black belt rank), your journey is all about being taught and copying what you are shown. As a yudansha, your journey is one of discovery and evolution! It is important for sensei to foster this growth in their students, if they want to keep them training for the long term. If the instructor doesn’t show the way, the students may never see it, and that will lead them to become bored and disenchanted with karate.